Saturday, October 5th, 2013

Another change of plans – not that we ever had a solid plan to begin with, but when we flew out to California, the rough idea was that we would stay in a hotel in San Francisco for the first two nights. Then, after we rented a camper, we would overnight at state and national parks as we drove north up the coast and south back down to San Francisco. We believed this was extraordinarily clever of us, because state and national parks are cheap. Yeah, when they’re open.

We scoped out all the parks along our route so we could easily find a place to stay no matter where we ended up on a particular day. And we even stuck to our plan for the first couple days, but we can sometimes be kinda inconsistent, and then there was the government shutdown thing. Actually, I’m going to blame it mostly on the government, just out of spite. Why not? But according to the plan, we were going to camp right up to and including our last night in California, somewhere near San Francisco, then get up in the morning, clean up as best as we could, drop the camper off and call a taxi to the airport.

Well.

After getting a good night’s sleep on a real bed in Chico, we talked it over for, oh, maybe a solid two or three minutes, and discovered that we were both of a mind to get another good night’s sleep in a hotel in San Francisco, preferably one that was close to the airport. We could drop off the camper as soon as we got there, spend the rest of the day in the city, be guaranteed a hot shower in the morning and head straight to the airport. Done deal.

But before we left Chico, we had to off-load a whole bunch of glassware that we’d collected along the way as souvenirs. A wine glass here or there doesn’t seem like much, but altogether it weighed a shit-ton and took up way more space than we had in our suitcases. Not a problem, though. We, in our cunning little minds, had already anticipated this. We found a UPS store in a strip mall in Chico, stacked all our glasses and bottles on the counter and asked the guy to send it back to our little red house in Wisconsin.

He seemed puzzled by our request. Not because we asked him to put stuff in a box and have it delivered, but apparently because of the shear volume of stuff. It was obvious that this was the first time anyone had ever asked him to do anything like this. It took him ten or fifteen minutes to wrap his head around the project before he began to arrange the glassware on the countertop, fitting them together like puzzle pieces. Then got out his tape measure to see if he had a box big enough to hold them. When his first try didn’t satisfy him, he rearranged everything, measured it again, shuffled a few pieces around and re-measured, et cetera forever and ever. Honestly, I didn’t expect it to take as long as it did. I figured we’d drop it off, he’s say “fifty dollars” or whatever, we’d pay him and that’d be it. When he was finally confident that he could pack it, he rang up an estimate of a hundred twenty dollars. We were visibly deflated, but by then we’d been standing there watching this guy for about an hour, and we knew we weren’t going to get it into our bags, so we paid him just to get the hell out of there. And that’s how we ended up with a collection of the most expensive wine glasses and beer glasses ever purchased by anybody anywhere.

Finally on the road again, B searched teh intarwebs for hotels while I drove back. She could do that because we set up our phones to be wifi hot spots. It was an arrangement that worked really well: B could navigate by keeping one eye on the little blue dot that crawled across Google maps as we drove down the road, or she could open a browser window to ask The Google where we could get a cold beer, a hot meal, or camp supplies, or even try to find out what the hell that big ugly animal in the road was, and so on.

B found a hotel that was not only close to the airport and offered a complimentary taxi ride, it was also about fifty yards from a bus stop and B could book a room on-line. Score! As we got closer to the city, we pulled over at one of those do-it-yourself car wash places to clean out the van with a giant super-suck vacuum cleaner, then went on through Oakland and crossed into San Francisco across the bay bridge. With B navigating from the right seat, finding the hotel was quick and easy.

After checking in and dropping our bags and assorted junk in the room, we drove across town to drop off the van. This was B’s first visit to the part of town called Dogpatch, mostly abandoned lots and warehouses that were slowly being taken over by growing businesses. We were supposed to leave the van in the lot behind a warehouse and drop the keys in a drop box, but the keys were attached to a fob that was too thick and wouldn’t fit through the slot. Funny, they didn’t mention that when they gave me instructions for returning the van. Somebody else must’ve noticed that before. I tried calling but there was no answer, so we left the keys locked in the van and walked back to the nearest streetcar stop.

A Flight of Beers at the Thirsty Bear brewpub, San Francisco CA

There were a couple of brewpubs in the city that we had pegged to visit: Our first stop was the Thirsty Bear, because B said they had the world’s greatest nuts. It had something to do with the way they were glazed. I thought they were okay, but give me a dish of roasted pistachios and I’m pretty happy with that. A dish of nuts wasn’t going to hold us over until we got something else to eat, though, so B asked for a plate of fried olives stuffed with duck sausage. I like to try new things, and I like just about anything with duck in it, but that sounded to me like the cook was just trying to be weird. Nothing weird about the beer, though. That was just tasty.

beer and fries at Southern Pacific Brewery San Francisco CAOur second stop was Southern Pacific Brewing somewhere in the heart of what must have been the industrial center of the city. The brewery itself occupied most, if not all of a former warehouse and was surrounded by other warehouses that have not been altered much since they stopped being warehouses, if they ever stopped, except that maybe one or two had a new coat of paint or a new fence topped by freshly-strung razor wire. We saw very few other people as we wandered the streets looking for the brewery, and I got the unsettled feeling that we were in a part of town that we should not have been in, but B kept telling me to relax as she pointed us down one street after another, The Google guiding us to our destination.

Southern Pacific was on a dead-end street; a casual stroller would never find it. In spite of its location, it appeared to be one of the most popular hangouts in the district. A block away, I got the impression that we were in a mostly-abandoned part of town, but as we turned the last corner we were suddenly swallowed up by a converging throng of smartly-dressed people heading in the same direction. They were almost all young people; B and I both got carded at the door. It’s been a long time since that’s happened. It’s also been a long time since I’ve been to a bar where Devo was playing on the stereo.

The place was packed, inside and out. Even so, B somehow managed to snag a table on the patio. It was a beautiful night, just warm enough to relax under the stars with a couple glasses of house-made heffe and pilsner and a basket of fried noshies to share between us.

It was fully dark by the time we left. Getting back to the hotel didn’t seem like much of a challenge at first: We had to walk maybe five or six blocks to the nearest bus stop, and the rest was virtually automatic. The streets around the brewery seemed even more deserted than before, though, and we saw nobody except for the occasional axe murderer hanging out in a doorway, or serial killer pushing a grocery cart stacked with body parts. B told me I was being paranoid, but she was walking as fast as I was.

We cooled our jets for a little more than an hour at the bus stop, watching every bus but the one we wanted whiz by, one after the other. When our bus finally showed up, it was twenty minutes late, or at least I think it was. The schedule apparently wasn’t worth much. After a thirty-minute bus ride we jumped off and discovered that we had to walk a block and a half to our hotel. Not too bad, but not as close as we thought. Whatever. It was still a good day.

California Day 9 | 6:36 am CDT
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Saturday, September 28th, 2013

First stop Saturday morning was breakfast at Sweet Maple where the coffee was strong and the bacon was one inch thick. Not literally, but pretty close, and that seems to be what it’s known for. Google “sweet maple san francisco” and you’ll see lots of photos people took of their bacon. I’m not kidding. I don’t remember much more about Sweet Maple, other than the food was good and the restaurant was very popular. We got there just before the morning rush of very fit-looking people showed up. By the time we finished our breakfast and left, the line was out the door.

From there we headed to Pier 39 to see the sea lions, the next item on our San Francisco bucket list (Golden Gate, cable cars, sea lions, an earthquake). A whole lot of floating docks have been moored off the far end of the pier that serve no other purpose than to give the dozens of fat sea lions a place to lounge in the sun so that tourists can take lots and lots of photos of them. I would bet that the people who own the expensive boats tied up along the actual docks pay extra money to keep the sea lions and their great big stinky sea lion poop way out on those floating docks. I could be wrong. But I bet I’m not.

After “see the sea lions” was checked off our bucket list, we wandered along the wharf toward Ghiardelli Square looking for the kiosk where we could buy a Muni pass that would let us ride the cable cars, trams and buses all day. The kiosk turned out to be at the end of the Hyde-Powell cable car line, right where we wanted to be. We planned to take the cable car to Lombard Street anyway, but then we got distracted by Ghiardelli Square, where we went to do a little shopping first and then ended up having ice cream for lunch. As you do.

There was a long, long line of tourists waiting to get on the cable car at the end of the line. I thought we would be able to beat the crowds by walking up the road a couple blocks and waiting at the stop for the next car that came along. See, I’m pretty devious that way. Well, it turns out that the guys who run the cable cars drive right by smartasses like me without so much as pausing to flip us off. The next cable car wasn’t due to come by for at least twenty minutes and would probably be just as packed full of tourists as the last one, so we wandered around until we found a bus to take us back to the top of Lombard Street. Note to self: Never plan on getting anywhere in San Francisco on the cable cars. They’re just a tourist attraction that happens to be a mode of transportation, not the other way around. Jump on them at least once so you can say you’ve done it, but if you need to get somewhere at a certain time, plan on getting there using anything else but a cable car.

Lombard Street is the twistiest-turniest street in San Francisco. And a tourist destination. So many tourists show up to take pictures of Lombard Street that there are a couple of San Francisco traffic cops at every intersection to keep traffic from running over the tourists. The locals must love that. We went because bucket list.

Lombard Street San Francisco

Then it was on to Telegraph Hill; easier said than done. We got on a bus that took us to within a couple blocks of Union Square as the base of Telegraph Hill, then couldn’t figure out how to get the rest of the way other than by just walking, which wasn’t a problem, it’s just that we’re both kind of out of shape, so much so that by the time we’d walked three blocks we were ready for a nap. We settled for a rest on a bench in the square.

B wanted to see the parrots of Telegraph Hill. I had my doubts that there even were any parrots, much less that we would be lucky enough to see even one of them, but she was determined to at least try. She was not, however, going to climb the hill, especially not after our three-block trek up to Union Square. Trying to sort out which bus to catch to the top, though, is not easy to do. There are lots of bus lines that stopped on a dozen or so corners, and it’s not like you can just look at them and intuit where they go. We had to circle around the square a couple times before we figured it out. When we finally got to the top, we were there barely five minutes, standing at the edge of the overlook to take a selfie, when a whole effen flock of parrots went whiffling past. Check off another item from our list.

Walking down Filbert Steps was a huge disappointment. It’s billed in the guide books as a scenic walk with classic views of the city, but it was more like a back alley.

We stopped to cool off with a couple of well-deserved cold beers at a bar in Union Square before walking up to Mason Street to catch a cable car to the cable car museum. (I would argue that this is the one time you should plan to go anywhere on a cable car.) The first cable car that came by blew us off. The driver didn’t even look our way. The next one paused, more or less (it was sort of a rolling stop), and the driver shouted at us, “FOUR! I can take FOUR! THERE!” he said, pointing at the running boards, “and THERE!” We jumped on and each of us grabbed a handhold, just like you see in the movies.

Let me take just a moment to tell you about cable cars. They move only as fast as the cable that pulls them along, and I think that’s something like ten, maybe twelve miles per hour, tops. Doesn’t look very fast when you’re walking along and see one go by. When you’re clinging to one for dear life, though, and cars are whizzing past just inches away from your butt, then cable cars seem to be GOING LIKE A BAT OUTTA HELL! Out trip to the museum on the outside of a cable car was maybe ten blocks at the most, not very far but terrifying, or exhilarating, I’m not sure which.

The cable car museum is actually the working powerhouse for two of the cable car lines. There’s a little museum off to one side, but smack in the middle of the room there are four or six or eight (I forget, sue me) whirling steel wheels, each as big as a full moon, pulling the cables that make the cars go up and down the hills. It’s kind of loud, but it’s really very cool, or at least it was to me. Even B said she liked it, and I think she really meant it, even though her eyes usually glass over when I mention going to see anything that has to do with trains.

After wandering around the museum a bit, we caught a bus downtown to get a beer at a brewpub called The 21st Amendment which was unfortunately right down the street from the baseball stadium and a game had just let out; the place was packed! Shoving our way through the crowds, we found a place upstairs to sit with our beers while the crowd yammered around us. The guy at the next table had an expression on his face, which got more disgusted with each passing minute, that said this was his favorite hangout, and all these jabbering yahoos were seriously harshing his buzz. We downed our beers and got out as quickly as we could, catching a street car across town, the intention being to get some dinner at a restaurant called The Social Kitchen.

We had a little trouble with the streetcar. The driver stopped well short of our destination in a residential neighborhood and told us we had to get out, but there would be another train along in about 20 minutes. Apparently this is a thing they do. “I can’t take you any further than this, get out.” The rest of the riders didn’t seem bothered at all by it, just got off and stood by the side of the road, waiting until the next tram came along. Well, whatever.

The brewpub was well worth the wait; good food and good beer. B sampled all their brews in a flight and I had just one glass before we ventured forth to catch the bus back to the hotel. The bus driver must have been related to the guy who drove the tram, because he dropped us off about ten blocks short of our destination in a residential neighborhood! It happened to us twice in one day! Bonus!

California Day Two | 6:22 am CDT
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Friday, September 27th, 2013

We landed in San Francisco airport in the afternoon, which sort of makes it sound as if I were flying the plane, doesn’t it? Even if I could, I’m not sure I would ever be able to steel myself up for that part where it looks like we’re landing on the water. That and a dozen other neuroses are why I’m not a commercial airline pilot.

The taxi driver who picked us up at the airport and drove us to the hotel treated us to a lively commentary of the sights along the way while he narrowly avoided causing several accidents. I like talking people and I like learning things I didn’t know about places I’ve never been. Most cabbies seem to feel the same way and I suspect that most of them believe they’ll get a better tip if they share, but goddamn I wish they’d just sit there silent as a stone if they can’t divide their attention well enough to keep it between the lines. Our guy got so distracted telling us about the beach that he drove past the road he wanted to turn on. Naturally, he did what anybody would expect him to do: He stopped in the middle of the road, threw the cab into reverse and backed up to the intersection while traffic whizzed by us.

We were booked at the Seal Rock Inn on Point Lobos Ave in the northeast corner of the city. It’s a long way gone from downtown San Francisco and it was not the fanciest of hotels, but the price was right. Besides, we weren’t going to be spending a lot of time there. For the short time we were there, we had a pretty good view of the entrance to the Golden Gate, when it wasn’t socked in by fog.

After we dropped our bags at the hotel, we were feeling just peckish enough to want a bite to eat, so we walked down to a seaside restaurant called Louis’s for an enormous sandwich. Actually, we walked past Louis’s to a bistro called Cliff House, but there was a waiting list, even though I could see open tables. It felt kind of hoity-toity, too. So we punched out of there as brassily as only out-of-towners can and walked back up the hill to Louis’s, a perfectly suitable diner perched on the edge of a seaside cliff with a terrific view of the sea.

Then we went for an amble along the road that appeared to go to Lincoln Park on the point at the entrance to the Golden Gate. I wanted to see if we could eyeball the bridge from there. We had to amble quite a bit further than I thought we would to get far enough around the point to see it, but when we finally did, it turned out to be worth the walk. It looks just as majestic in person as it does whenever you see it in movies or artsy-fartsy photos, even from that far away.

B and I at the Golden Gate

The overlook was about in the middle of the trail that ran along the water’s edge in Lincoln Park, and B suggested that, instead of going back along the part that we’d already seen, we keep going to see what else there was. The park wasn’t all that special, but the view of the bridge got better and better. I successfully avoided the temptation to crawl out on the rocks with the rest of the tourists, partly because I’m not the daredevil I used to be, but mostly because there were signs posted along the way warning that other people who tried that had fallen to their deaths, and I didn’t disbelieve them.

It was about six-thirty by the time we came to the end of the trail on the other side of the park, so we used our handy-dandy smart phones to find the nearest bus stop and hopped on the first bus into town. Buying smart phones right before we went on this trip was about the smartest thing we did (I’ll get to the dumbest things later). We never got lost, and we could do things like look up bus schedules, although they weren’t always as accurate as they could have been.

We jumped off the bus at Hyde Street, then rode a cable car (our first cable car ride together!) to the waterfront. B wanted to visit a wine shop in the tourist district. There was nobody in the place except the host, a younger guy who liked to tell stories about all the places he’d been around the world. Said he’d been to 31 states and 50-something countries, and had the snapshots on his camera to prove it. He showed us his latest trip to Cambodia while he poured wine. A born salesman, he convinced us to tote quite a lot of wine back to the hotel with us. Well, quite a lot for us. I had the feeling he thought he was going to sell us quite a lot more.

After a long bus ride back to the hotel, we turned in late and slept the sleep of travellers who’d just crossed the country and spent all day walking around a new city.

cali friday1 | 4:45 pm CDT
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